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Nikki Haley’s rivals call her Wall Street’s candidate. Why? And does it matter?

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Nikki Haley’s rivals call her Wall Street’s candidate. Why? And does it matter?

Dec 07, 2023 | 8:02 pm ET
By Abraham Kenmore
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Nikki Haley’s rivals call her Wall Street’s candidate. Why? And does it matter?
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Former Gov. Nikki Haley speaks to supporters at the Statehouse on Monday, Oct. 30, 2023, before signing paperwork to be on South Carolina's GOP presidential primary ballot. (Mary Ann Chastain/Special to the SC Daily Gazette)

Nikki Haley’s GOP rivals are increasingly painting the former South Carolina governor as the “establishment” candidate backed by uber wealthy Wall Street liberals, an accusation she dismissed in this week’s presidential debate as mere jealousy from contenders who recognize her rise in the polls.

But questions about her Wall Street ties came from a moderator, too.

“Weeks ago, you met with Wall Street heavyweights including leaders from JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs and BlackRock. Several other billionaire investors are reportedly ready to endorse you or recently have, all of which comes with expectations,” former Fox News host Megyn Kelly said in setting up her first question to Haley during Wednesday’s televised debate hosted by NewsNation.

“Aren’t you too tight with the banks and billionaires to win over the GOP’s working-class base?” she asked.

So, why are they saying she’s Wall Street’s choice? Here’s a look at some of the headlines:

• A week ago, the chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, Jamie Dimon, publicly called for donors — including Democrats — to back Haley as an alternative to Trump, The New York Times reported.

• Earlier this week, The New York Times reported that prominent Democratic donor Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn, donated $250,000 to a mega political action committee supporting Haley. Called a super PAC, such committees can accept and spend unlimited amounts of money to support a candidate but cannot legally coordinate with the campaign.

• Earlier this year, WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum donated a combined $5 million to the SFA Fund Inc., a super PAC supporting Haley, according to Federal Election Commission records.

• In mid-November, Haley traveled to New York City and met with leaders of BlackRock and Goldman Sachs, according to the Financial Times.

• On Monday, Haley held a fundraiser that raised over $500,000 in a New York City penthouse, according to NBC. Attendees included donors from finance and investment companies.

• One endorsement she proudly touts as a conservative counter to the questioning came last week from Americans for Prosperity Action, the candidate-backing arm of the group founded by prominent conservative billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch. Their support is assured to bring thousands of volunteers and millions of dollars in advertising.

As for her personal bank account, Haley has boosted her income with high-dollar speeches since leaving her job in the Trump administration as United Nations ambassador.

In the year before announcing her presidential bid, she gave 12 speeches that paid at least $100,000 and possibly up to $1 million each, according to a mandated financial report she filed in the spring. The report’s broad range didn’t require exact amounts. Audiences included the National Automobile Dealers Association, Linden Capital Partners and Barclays Capital Asia Limited, with speeches given in Canada, Australia and Singapore as well as the United States.

What she said is unknown. Haley’s campaign has previously told NBC that she has no record of what she said in those speeches, calling them question-and-answer sessions.

Other support

Responding Thursday to the SC Daily Gazette, the Haley campaign stressed her wide support from smaller-dollar donors. Collectively, more than 150,000 people have given to the campaign, for an average donation of less than $100, said spokesman Ken Farnaso.

“We’re proud of our support from hardworking Americans who are inspired by Nikki’s conservative message,” he said. “Nikki is surging because people like her strong foreign policy, her record as a job creator, her plan to combat inflation, and her call to move on from the drama and chaos of the past.”

That’s unlikely to shift the messaging from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy heading into next month’s debates. (The uber wealthy give unlimited sums to super PACs, not the campaign.) The pair teamed up against her early on Wednesday, sharpening what’s been said on the campaign trail.

In rural Prosperity last Friday, DeSantis knocked former President Donald Trump — who remains the dominant frontrunner in 2024 — for working with BlackRock but quickly pivoted the criticism toward Haley.

“And now Haley is meeting with the head of BlackRock in New York City,” he said at the town-hall-style event. “She is now the one that the liberal Wall Street people are saying, ‘This is our candidate.’”

‘We’ll take it’

On the debate stage, Haley said her campaign would take support from anyone.

“When it comes to these corporate people that suddenly want to support us, we’ll take it,” she said. “I don’t ask them what their policies are. They ask me what my policies are, and I tell them what it is. Sometimes they agree with me, sometimes they don’t.”

Addressing the swipes from DeSantis and Ramaswamy, she said, “In terms of these donors that are supporting me, they’re just jealous. They wish they were supporting them.”

State Sen. Tom Davis, who’s backing Haley, described her as a “classic conservative,” attributing the Wall Street backing to her calls for limited government, low taxes and fewer regulations.

“She is for those things that allow businesses to thrive and prosper,” said the Beaufort Republican. “She’s not a populist. She’s not a culture warrior.”

The head of The Citadel’s political science department similarly said Wall Street’s support makes sense, given her business-friendly reputation and her rise in the polls to either second, above DeSantis, or a close third depending on the state.

“If you’re a betting man, which I suppose corporations have to gamble a little bit, she is the most pro-corporation, pro-business candidate, more so than DeSantis,” said DuBose Kapeluck, pointing to DeSantis’s legal battles with Disney regarding oversight of its theme park in Florida, during which Haley publicly invited the corporation to South Carolina.

Every candidate needs money to be a contender, he added.

“Everybody would love to have these opportunities,” Kapeluck said. “That’s just unfortunately the way American politics works. You have to raise money, and you go hunting where the ducks are, and you go collecting money where the money is. And there’s a lot of money in high finance.”

Her rivals might indeed be envious of her, he said.

Will it matter?

That perception of Haley being too close to Wall Street elites could hurt her chances of overcoming Trump, Kapeluck said.

But she’s not going to win over die-hard Trump supporters anyway. She wants to be the choice for people looking for an alternative to Trump, and they’re less likely to care about the Wall Street connections, said Mark Owens, an assistant political science professor at The Citadel.

A new PAC endorsing DeSantis has run an ad saying Haley is being backed by the same “globalist Wall Street bankers” that backed Hillary Clinton’s run for president. Clinton also gave high-dollar speeches before running for president. Back in 2016, Haley criticized Clinton for refusing to release transcripts.

Kapeluck, though, thinks Haley has an advantage over Clinton, given that she spent far less time in national politics.

“I don’t think she can be tarred by the same insider brush that Hilary Clinton was.”

Dave Woodard, a retired Clemson University professor and Republican consultant, said who donates to a campaign is unlikely to change votes.

“I think that’s too particular for voters,” said the political science professor who opposed Haley when she ran for governor. “Are they going to vote for, I dunno, another candidate over her over that? I don’t think so.”

Calling Haley a libertarian conservative, Woodard discounted criticism about her high-dollar speeches.

“I don’t think anyone in South Carolina will resent money she made after leaving the Trump administration,” he said.